Footlights and Fancy-Free

Theatre League of South Florida

A few empty parking spaces suddenly and miraculously available on Ocean Drive, combined with the paucity of openings around town, tell this reviewer it's time for the 1992-93 season wrap-up, an annual offering that enables me to put the growth of South Florida theater in perspective. This year, since both categories bear notation, I'll dare to mention both the best and the worst. As the saying goes, there can be no beauty without ugliness.

First off, let me deliver some fine news: When I took this position several moons ago, 80 percent of the productions I attended -- from full Equity to semiprofessional theater -- ranged from fair to awful. Virtually no new plays were appearing, and those new attempts that did debut smacked of the sophomoric. Today I can honestly say that percentages have drastically improved. Many of the shows I've seen in the past year range from good to excellent, and some solid original works have emerged. Despite the fiscal nightmare of budget cuts and the natural havoc wrought by Hurricane Andrew -- which added to the financial troubles -- South Florida theater has not only survived, it has matured considerably.

The best of the new pieces was, without question, the Miami Actor's Studio presentation of local playwright Sarah E. Bewley's evangelically driven tale, Power in the Blood. Another winner graced the new stage of the Public Theatre: a modern farce about a gay man who moves in with two jocks, Jerry M. Radloff's Roommate Wanted.

The worst of the originals included Alan Farago's dismal writing and direction of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington, a farcical stab at the Environmental Protection Agency that contained a disquieting array of ridiculous scenes with actors dressing up as whooping cranes and a plot that went nowhere; the only notable device was the opening and closing of several doors, several hundred times. As the other winner of worst original, Jeff Whipple -- again unwisely functioning without enough experience as director of his own play -- attempted a skewed vision of the future in Telewas, but only succeeded in taking a bayonet to the art of playwriting.

The strangest new show wavered between awful, original, and endearingly eccentric: the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches's musical about a mommy-obsessed serial killer, writer Douglas J. Cohen's adaptation of the William Goldman novel No Way to Treat a Lady. I suggest someone send this promising script to Sondheim to shape up; it's right up his dark alley.

As for revivals of previously produced work, enough entries deserved healthy applause to warrant a list. Order does not necessary connote excellence -- all of the following contained superb direction and performances that smartly and slickly served superior plays:

*The Public Theatre: Lanford Wilson's Burn This
*The New Theatre: Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca
*Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly
*The Caldwell Theatre: Donald Margulies's Sight Unseen
*ACME Acting Company: James McLure's PVT. Wars
*Coconut Grove Playhouse: Pamela Ross's Carreno!
*The Actor's Playhouse: Adler, Ross, Abbott, and Wallop's Damn Yankees

*Broward Center for the Performing Arts: Lerner & Loewe's Camelot featuring Robert Goulet

*The Public Theater's New River Shakespeare Festival: Romeo and Juliet
*The Miami Actor's Studio: Frank Marcus's The Killing of Sister George
*The eighth International Hispanic Theatre Festival: Maria Alice Vergueiro and Caca Rosset's Tudo de uma vez from the always superb Teatro do Ornitorrinco from Brazil. The one-woman show, not previously reviewed in this column, details one lonely night in the life of an aging alcoholic singer who confronts her gigolo lover and tries every female trick -- from attempted suicide to dominance -- in a futile attempt to solicit some hint of affection. The play's star and coauthor, Vergueiro, gave such a perfect performance at the Festival that she easily merits global celebrity.

Every one of the nights just listed proved magical; on every ride home I thanked the Force for my position. But not all my experiences brought bounty; weeds lurked within the seasonal yield.

While I saw quite a few bombs, I must single out two shows for consistent and excruciating blunders in writing, direction, and performance: Shields and & Yarnell's misguided resurrection of their 1970s' mime act presented at the Grove Playhouse, Him, Her & You, demonstrated that time could indeed seem to stand still -- at least for the course of the show. Tedious, old-fashioned skits and ear-destroying sound effects ensured that these folks won't enjoy Tina Turner's celebrity rebirth any time in the next century or so. Lee Blessing, normally a fine playwright, inexplicably wrote Fortinbras, a shoddy sequel/satire of Hamlet. If the play wasn't bad enough, the New River Repertory's cast buried any hope for the piece far deeper than Yorick. Both these evenings felt more like bamboo under the fingernails than any form of entertainment.

To exonerate South Florida, may I say that when I reviewed theater in the Big Apple, I saw a whole lot more bad than good. Believe me, we're not alone. The premier goal remains to keep trying and keep taking risks, particularly in the area of new plays. Now that the artistic odds have turned in our favor, more money may also find its way to local boards and bards. With that combination, the prognosis is hopeful. This area can become a prime locale for drama if the audiences want it badly enough. The simple key A attend and root for new, cutting-edge shows. The Force should take care of the rest.

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